Category Archives: Migration

The Nativists and Me

Some common seed-dispersal systems. (Illustration: David Plunkert)

Certain aspects of spring make me squirm. Particularly those related to advice on what I should and should not plant. Even what I should actively eradicate. Insistent voices and ubiquitous manifestos inform me that I must limit myself to native plants—that is, those established before European and African settlement—and wage war on all others. Which you might think is mere hyperbole on my part, but that is not so. The desire to make my local environment resemble what it might have looked like before 1492, when Columbus crossed the ocean blue, is what drives the definition of “native” in a booklet just published by the Maryland Native Plant Society. Which makes me wonder why this document was not produced by a printing press, invented circa 1440, instead of some digital device available only recently.

On the surface, I have at least two problems with people who espouse this sort of nativism. First, I am not convinced that they love nature nearly as much as they claim. If they did, they would readily embrace an essential aspect: constant change. Which is particularly important these days since phenomena such as global warming are rapidly accelerating the rate of this change. Meaning that trying to make current vegetation resemble that of previous centuries, where the natural and man-made environment was decidedly different, is maladaptive, at best. If they must mess with Mother Nature, they might better ask what her future needs were and attempt to meet them. Second, they do not seem to understand the inherent futility of their efforts. Both plants and animals, including the human kind, are set up to spread. The salient difference between flora and fauna is that the former relocate by more subtle means. Say, through seed dispersal. And between autochory—most notably the use of gravity—and allochory—wind, water, animals and humans—them flora sure do get around. Of course, much of seed dissemination is polychorous, which makes those nativists that come down particularly hard on the human-vectored sort of dispersal come across as somewhat silly.

Deep down, there is another problem that I do not bring up with such nativists. Much like my father, who seemed to fear for his manhood each spring that my mother made him to lop off tree limbs and prune bushes, I—a non-native Marylander (here by way of Latvia, Austria, Germany, Michigan, Massachusetts and Alabama), a merely naturalized US citizen and a former displaced person—fear for my place in my present community, my adopted country and even the world as a whole at the start of each growing season. Because, invariably, I get sucked into discussions with those finding the likes of the multiflora roses and butterfly bushes on my riverbank offensive and then wonder just how they find me. You see, there is a political form of nativism that seeks to preserve or reinstate status for established inhabitants against the claims of newcomers and seems disturbingly similar to that of those seeking to reinstate some prior status of the riverbank.

The arguments used are certainly similar. And similarly questionable. They say, for instance, that the trouble with non-natives is that there are no natural predators to keep them in check. And that unchecked growth decreases biodiversity. Try telling that to our native beavers, who indiscriminately destroy the Japanese cherry trees, non-native but beloved, planted along the Tidal Basin and the native dogwood that I planted in memory of my mother. And to those humans, presumably native-born, who attack immigrants in our area and made life miserable for my family and five-year-old me when we arrived in Michigan. If diversity really is at issue, those nativists would beat on beavers, not butterfly bushes, which beavers blessedly leave alone. But they do not, any more than the other sort fights anti-immigration groups. Most would readily revert to 1965, when white people still comprised 85 percent of the population rather than rejoice that non-Hispanic whites will no no longer represent the majority by 2044.

Of course, nativists rarely seem to commit to reinstating the status of all plants or all people to anywhere near that of pre-colonial days. Few, for instance, show any interest in pushing for legislation restoring the status of Indian tribes. Even those who refer to them as “Native Americans” and admire their artifacts. And while dandelions are anointed by the Maryland Biodiversity Project and touted by the University of Maryland as nutrient-rich plants used by said Native Americans to treat a range of disorders, not many refrain from ripping those pretty but pesky natives from their lawns. Much like my mother in Michigan, who sought total annihilation as my father and and I stood by and smirked. (Monoculture lawns seem to be suburbanites’ sacred sites. When I worked in Washington, a colleague from posh Potomac said in all seriousness, “We have been invaded by violets.”)

Undogmatic by nature, I was pleased to learn that organizations such as the The Nature Conservancy now take a nuanced stance. Altering the orthodoxy that assumes that non-natives are guilty until proven innocent, points such as the following serve as rational replacements:

  1. Non-natives can have devastating impacts, especially on islands,
  2. But they can also provide much-needed habitats for endangered species and be the best bet for erosion and mudslide control.
  3. Trade restrictions and border controls have reduced the flow of known pests, and some eradication programs have succeeded
  4. But millions of federal dollars have been spent without any measurable impact on either biodiversity or ecosystem function.
  5. It is important to protect against certain highly invasive species
  6. But novel ecosystems are increasingly common and, going forward, will need to be viewed as part of the total ecosystem.

Not only are these points applicable to, say, my multiflora roses, which were, in fact, introduced to control erosion on riverbanks such as mine, but also to non-native humans such as me. Substitute some words in a Conservancy statement, and you will see. “Science-based conservation cannot be about knee-jerk platitudes and simple views of good and evil” any more than evidence-based immigration or refugee policy can be about knee-jerk platitudes and simple views .  .  .

The mixed blessings of introduced species are well-illustrated by the Columbian Exchange, that widespread transfer of not only people but also plants and animals and microbes, not to mention culture and science and technology, that took place between the American and Afro-Eurasian hemispheres as a consequence of the colonization and trade that followed from that somewhat ill-considered trip Columbus took. While non-native diseases certainly contributed to precipitous declines in indigenous populations, benefits accrued, as well. There was, for instance, no honey bee here back then. The same one that now is undergoing colony collapse and causing us to wring our hands about how we will feed ourselves in the future without this important pollinator. We probably will figure out a way, since humans—arguably the most invasive species of all—and ecosystems do eventually adapt.

Meanwhile, I will continue to root for those dastardly multiflora roses and butterfly bushes since those beleaguered bees sure do like feasting on their flowers. And that useless grassy hillside—it could barely be called a lawn—behind my house that I turned into some semblance of  a rain garden, full of non-native shrubs and small trees selected not only for their shade tolerance but also because they are not too tasty to our native white-tailed deer, who eat everything in sight. And those non-native lettuces and carrots that I plan to plant in our community garden. And the native tobacco plants, but only when they are restricted to the colonial garden, co-located with our own at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, which is dedicated to the first African-American man of science and son of a former slave.

I will also continue to support the Syrian refugees, not only because I was a refugee once myself but also because I cannot imagine how I would be able write another word without the elegant digital devices developed by a man whose biological father hailed from Homs. And the migrants who enter the country from the south, not only because part of the States once belonged to those below the border but also because one is my next-door neighbor. And to oppose those nativists who believe that closing borders and building walls will somehow “make America great again.” Not only because I cannot countenance their irrational hatred but also because they ignore their own history. Particularly the part where the Columbian Exchange and subsequent waves of immigration carried the seeds of greatness to their shores.

 

Some non-native plants, animals and microbes. (Source: Encyclopædia Britannica)
Some non-native plants, animals and microbes. (Source: Encyclopædia Britannica)

Lost Lost Lost

Jonas Mekas, a displaced person in the States. (Photo: Boris Lehman)

“I grew up in paradise,” Brooklyn-based Johas Mekas says, referring to the Biržai area on the LithuanianLatvian border. “Then the Soviets came and they brought Hell.” That precipitated a series of events that turned him into a displaced person, brought him to the United States and made him the filmmaker—often called “the godfather of American avant-garde cinema“—and all-around artist he is today.

Within weeks of his arrival in 1949, he borrowed enough money to buy his first Bolex 16mm camera and began recording his immigrant experience. One result was the 1976 film Lost Lost Lost, which a New York Times reviewer described as “one of the finest” among his many achievements, “a beautifully constructed diary film . . . At once rough-hewn and delicate.” On his site, Mekas describes the film as follows:

The period I am dealing with in these six reels was a period of desperation, of attempts to desperately grow roots into the new ground, to create new memories. In these six painful reels I tried to indicate how it feels to be in exile, how I felt in those years. These reels carry the title Lost Lost Lost, the title of a film myself and my brother wanted to make in 1949, and it indicates the mood we were in, in those years. It describes the mood of a Displaced Person who hasn’t yet forgotten the native country but hasn’t gained a new one. The sixth reel is a transitional reel where we begin to see some relaxation, where I begin to find moments of happiness. New life begins. What happens later, you’ll have to see the next installment of reels . . .

Since we are in the midst of the worst refugee crisis since World War II and many seem to be confused and conflicted about what America should do about the masses of displaced people, I would like to show how the nation that allowed me in during 1949 has benefited from some of my fellow refugees. So, I will let Mekas tell you his story, as he did a few years ago, and show you around his Williamsburg studio:

 

 

Note: There are clips from Lost Lost Lost available on DailyMotion and YouTube, and the entire film is can be purchased on DVD from his website.

A Good Day

My father and me doing nothing much on a nondescript day in the Fifties.

In 2010, WilliamTunstall-Pedoe, a University of Cambridge-trained computer scientist, claimed that analysis of over 300 million facts by his search engine True Knowledge led to the conclusion that the second Sunday of April 1954 was the most boring day since the start of the 20th Century. As a nine-year-old experiencing that day, I am sure that I would have wholeheartedly concurred. And predicted that the same would be said of the entire decade. But that there would surely be a shift in the Sixties, when I would be old enough to go away to school and leave behind the most boring city in the world, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and my family, which, though not the least bit boring, tolerated tedium all too well. I would then lead an exciting life.

I did go on to lead an exciting life, although often not in the ways that I had naively envisioned. Which might be why, after more decades of that than I care to recall, I came to the same conclusion that my family must have reached by that Sunday in 1954: any day where nothing happens is a good—not a boring—day. A day, for instance, were my grandfather is not dragged out to the courtyard of the factory that he runs in Kharkov and executed by Russian revolutionaries. Where my pregnant grandmother, accompanied by my mother, a mere toddler, does not arrive in Rīga with little more than suitcases of worthless rubles. Where I do not leave my native land right after leaving the hospital where I was born because the Red Army is about to burn down Valmiera. Where, once my family and I escape to Austria, I do not cry because all my grandmother can give me while my mother is at work in a distant city is goat’s milk from the old woman who lives up the mountain. Where my father does not fall the equivalent of several stories at the hydroelectric dam where he has to work. Where my family and I do not wear overcoats inside the unheated space above the garage that our sponsor in the United States—a Lutheran minister—sees as suitable living quarters during a Michigan winter. Where my well-educated father does not walk 26 miles in the snow to Grand Rapids to find work as manual laborer in a furniture factory. Where my well-bred mother does not miscarry my brother doing brutal piecework at a brass factory on the same street. Where my accomplished grandmother does not read a redacted letter from her son, who is imprisoned in a godforsaken Kazakhstan gulag. Where . . .

So, as I sit at my computer on a gray October Sunday and have little to look forward to other than finishing this piece and the housecleaning that I started last week and the cooking that I do on weekends to use up as much as possible before shopping on Monday, which I do so that I can dispose of as much packaging material as possible when trash collectors arrive at my curb before sunrise Tuesday morning, I must grudgingly admit that I am having a good day. After all, I hardly need to head for the hospital because I am in danger of dying, as was the case just this past January. I can even take comfort in the fact that others that I know are likely having a good day, as well. I just read a message, for instance, from a fellow Latvian in New York who grew up with me in Michigan and whose family, much like mine, had survived some seriously bad days. I learned that she spent last night handing out Halloween candies and reminded myself that she did not need to deal with waking up this morning to a seemingly healthy husband in the throes of the cardiac event that kills him, since that had already occurred, along with my disturbing brush with death, earlier this year.

Still, it is hard to dismiss all those incessant updates on the Syrian crisis that serve as nagging reminders that there are refugees much like what my NY friend and I and our families once were still out there and that they continue to have horrible days. I am relieved, at least—and hope that my friend is too—that, earlier this month, I stopped short of ordering that frivolous birthday basket of cookies and brownies with those pretty ribbons from Williams-Sonoma, doubled what I would have spent, found the site of the International Rescue Committee—the outstanding refugee-aid NGO where I once volunteered—and gave the Gift of Warmth Through the Winter in her name instead. Since it has grown much colder over the subsequent weeks and this present provides families with emergency kits that include protective sheeting, warm blankets, mattresses, woolen socks and insulated boots and clothing, perhaps now there is at least one less displaced person at risk for hypothermia. Hence—by my current definition—having a good day. I doubt that my friend missed the unsent basket since she does not need to worry about hunger. And could spend her birthday having a lovely lunch in the city, followed by a rousing night at the opera, which, no doubt, took it from a good to a great day.

Note: If you want to send me a holiday gift—or even a card or a cheery message—might I recommend a similar re-direction? Or, even better, a direct refugee donation, since that seems to involve a little less overhead.

Migrants and Thugs

Baltimore poet Clarinda Harris at the launch of the 2013 Little Patuxent Review Music issue in Columbia, Maryland. (Photo: Linda Joy Burke)

One thing that Clarinda and I have a tendency to do is obsess about words. Understandable, you might say, since both write: one writes poetry, the other prose. Or, if you know us a bit better, you might say that, even for writers, we take it too far. Last autumn—or was it last fall?—we had a long discussion about how spelling could change the way that others perceive a description of, say, an overcast day. Revisiting that recently, Clarinda said, “And yeah, not only is ‘grey’ brownish and ‘gray’ bluish to me, but I have asked generations of writing students about the two spellings, and 100 percent have had a strong opinion.” So if such a neutral word can ignite such fervent feelings, then maybe everyone should obsess more about today’s overheated words. Particularly the important ones like “migrants” and “thugs.”

“Migrants” is my obsession since I once fled from conflict myself and am deeply concerned about the current global crisis. On the surface, it seems like a good word. Something all-encompassing that can be used while the specifics are sorted out. Even a word that taps into the basic tendency of populations to move from one location to another. Human beings migrateOther animals migrate, as well. Even plant life as rooted as forests migrates. The problem is that the word lumps together voluntary and forced population movement, which can be a fine distinction but often has profound implications. A better general term would be “displaced persons,” which was used for people like me during and after World War II and only refers to forced migration. Which makes me wonder whether governments now conveniently avoid the term because it has real meaning under international law.

You see, displaced persons who have crossed a border and fall under one of a number of international legal instruments are considered to be “refugees.” And, under the 1951 Refugee Convention, they have the right to seek asylum in the nation that they enter and to enjoy all the rights and benefits that exist therein. They are also exempt from penalties pertaining to illegal entry, provided that they promptly declare their presence, and are protected from forcible return to their country of origin. “Asylum-seekers,” by the way, are DPs who could be refugees but whose claims have not yet been properly evaluated. So that would be another entirely appropriate term to use these days.

But how people are seen can be as important as their legal status. Call displaced persons “migrants” and you run the risk transforming them into an invasive subhuman species that must be herded into pens and grudgingly tossed some food, as has happened in Hungary. Or, when granted human characteristics, turned into illegal immigrants that deserve to be beaten, arrested and deported, as has occurred there and in Slavic states. Even in the United States, where “migrant” is not only a noun but also an adjective, as in “migrant worker,” the word can be disparaging. Thus, someone as caring as Clarinda has to admit, “‘Migrant’ has taken on a specific class-related meaning for me. A ‘refugee’ can be a surgeon, a poet, a ballet dancer. A ‘migrant’ will be cleaning your toilets if there’s not enough fruit-picking to go around.”

Therefore, given how wrongly “migrants” are viewed and treated in a number of nations, it comes as no surprise that a dispirited Syrian student would sum it up for a reporter from The Guardian by saying:

You know Tupac? You know his song “Thug Life“? That’s us right now,” he laughs. “We’re living the Thug Life—we have sleeping bags, and we sleep on the floor.

Which brings me to Clarinda’s word, “thugs.” It has great relevance for her since she lives a few miles from Mondawmin Mall, where, earlier this year, protests of Freddie Gray’s death had turned sufficiently violent to receive international coverage. But both of us should have been more alert from the outset to the role that words played in the accompanying commentary. You see, a substantial number of people in leadership positions, including President Barak Obama, attributed the mayhem to “criminals” and “thugs.” I thought nothing of it, given his taste in music tends toward Etta James, except to note that the latter word was redundant and rather quaint. And sloppy for someone with a law degree who usually chooses words with great care.

It did not occur to me that “thugs” was possibly being used as a code word until I learned that it was the subject of considerable discussion in Clarinda’s neighborhood online chat room. “I weighed in several times on the meaning of ‘thug,’ she said, “which has regrettably taken on ‘black’ coloration. I knew from my father that it originated from the ‘Thuggee’ fraternity in India—highway robbers who worshiped Kali in the ‘goddess of murder’ guise. I always used it to mean cheap lower-tier criminals, white; it came in handy for skinheads. However, with my lifelong fascination with language, I understand that language changes, and you cannot make a word un-mean something it has come to mean. So yeah, in 2015 Baltimore, ‘thug’ is a racial slur.”

It is not so surprising that a word that started with one negative meaning would end up with another one. But it did come as a shock when “displaced person,” shortened to “DP,” was used pejoratively against my family and me and fellow Latvians after we arrived at our final destination, Grand Rapids, Michigan, since that term had no inherently negative connotations. It seems that when people are prejudiced against any segment of society, any word will do. Still, America has changed enough that I now proudly use DISPLACED PERSON as my website name. Perhaps that will also occur with some variant of “thug.” (But not the way it has with the likes of Thug Kitchen, mistakenly considered as cool.) Because there was a time when, through the artistry of the late Tupac Shakur, it was a word that filled a real void.

You see, Urban Dictionary defines “thug” as “someone who is going through struggles, has gone through struggles, and continues to live day by day with nothing for them.” It makes a point of differentiating “thug” from “gangster,” citing Shakur: “That boy ain’t a gangsta, fo’ sho.’  Look at how he walks, he’s a thug.  life. That’s the saddest face I’ve seen in all my life as a teen.” Viewed this way, a thug could be a kid from Sandtown who showed up to support Gray and took it too far. He could be that kid from Syria, who might soon retaliate for how he is being treated. Both could say what Shakur did in a 1996 interview:

I didn’t choose the thug life, the thug life chose me. All I’m trying to do is survive and make good out of the dirty, nasty unbelievable lifestyle that they gave me.

Note: For more on the current refugee crisis, see my two previous pieces, “Debt of Honor” and “Were You Ever a Refugee?” For more on the people that America calls “criminals,” see the piece that I wrote with Clarinda, “On Being Invisible: Our Nation’s Incarcerated,” for Little Patuxent Review.